In early 2008, the University of Houston was an unexpectedly verdant campus, pleasantly surprising first-time visitors with a lush array of trees far greater than you’d imagine at an “urban” institution. By the middle of September, that had changed dramatically.
Hurricane Ike came sweeping across the Caribbean and through the Gulf of Mexico, making landfall near Galveston. All told, its ferocious winds and storm surge accounted for nearly 200 deaths and $38 billion in damages.
While UH was fortunate to avoid any loss of life or serious injuries, the evacuated campus suffered considerably. Roofs were ripped off and many areas inundated. But the most visible impact was to the 7,000 or so trees. As many as a third were felled immediately by 100-mph winds or damaged so severely their demise seemed inevitable. Little was spared. “We lost our youngest trees, and we lost some wonderful 100-year-old oaks,” David Irvin, an associate vice president for plant operations, said at the time. “It will take many months to figure out how we rebuild,” he predicted.
Months? Try years.
But today, the campus shows few obvious scars from Hurricane Ike. UH’s devastated tree population has been steadily recovering, if not on a tree-for-tree basis, then in terms of overall condition.
“We may not have quite as many trees on campus now as we did then, but on the whole, the health and resiliency of what we do have is better,” said Roger Warner, UH’s resident landscape architect.
Following Hurricane Ike’s havoc, the replacement policy has relied on caliper measurement — trunk size — as the general guideline, not individually supplanting each tree that was lost. All things considered, it was determined that approach would more effectively restore the campus’ lost tree canopy in a shorter period, Warner noted.
“There were more than 200 trees planted using insurance money UH received to help restore the landscape, and about half of those were really substantial, 100-gallon replacements (about 15-20-foot tall),” said Warner, who joined UH two years after the hurricane. “Since then, we have tried to step back and evaluate the tree situation strategically with respect to our campus as a whole.”
There has been an emphasis, for example, on simplifying campus plantings in general, making the landscaping more cohesive, with similar plants and trees grouped together to allow for easier maintenance. Before that, there had been considerable leeway at times about what kind of trees were planted and where, leading to certain oddities on campus — such as the seemingly incongruous sprinkling of palms here and there.
Today, consistency is a goal. All thoroughfares around and through campus, for example, are being planted only with live oaks, developing a signature look.
But as much as UH is focusing on the future, there are some aspects from the past that can’t be ignored — the campus’ two “sacred trees,” for instance.
“We were advised to keep hands off,” said Warner. “Not that we would want to do anything to jeopardize such remarkable specimens.”
The trees have earned their “sacred” status by virtue of their extraordinary size and age. For some, they are almost as much a part of UH tradition as the Ezekiel Cullen Building or Shasta.
One is an immense Southern Magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora) that stands proudly on a modest plot squeezed in between the M.D. Anderson Library and the Student Center. It is 40 feet high and spreads out nearly 60 feet across, with bottom limbs so thick and heavy they scrape the ground. In the spring, its beautiful white blossoms perfume the air with their distinctively sweet scent. The first few times you encounter it, the likely response is, “Now that is some big honking tree.” But, in time, it begins to blend in with the scenery and, each day, thousands of campus regulars seem to pass it by without a second thought or the appreciation it deserves.
The other sacred UH tree occupies a far less prominent site, setting almost alone in the middle of a grassy field behind the Campus Recreation and Wellness Center. It is a huge Honey Mesquite (Prosopis glandulosa), not particularly pretty but still impressive in its own gnarly, rough-barked way. At first, it appears to be a conglomeration of smaller trees, but it’s actually a single, multi-trunked entity, spreading dramatically across nearly two-thirds of a football field in size. Its many crooked and drooping branches are covered with small, feathery leaves. In spring, the tree produces clusters of fragrant, yellow-green flowers that attract honey bees, followed by long seed pods in the fall.
“Sacred” though they may be to UH, their importance isn’t limited to the campus. Both are listed in the Harris County Tree Registry, which ranks the area’s most notable examples of specific varieties. Among all Southern Magnolias, for instance, UH’s comes in at No. 8. And that Honey Mesquite? Well, it’s the grand champion. That’s right — the biggest Honey Mesquite in the whole county is on the UH campus.
Naturally, Warner and his landscaping colleagues are pleased to have inherited those two arboreal treasures, but their more immediate concerns have to do with making UH’s entire tree inventory as healthy and hardy as possible. That means focusing on such obvious matters as water and mulch, but also battling against more invidious challenges such as soil compaction created by hordes of walk-anywhere pedestrians and drive-anywhere service vehicles.
“We want trees that help beautify our campus,” Warner says, “but we need strong trees, trees that are going to survive the next drought and the next hurricane.”